Donna Christensen

St. Kitts Speech - Jan. 1, 2000

Donna Christensen
January 01, 2000— St. Kitts
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Thank you, the honorable Jacinth Henry Martin, for that kind introduction.

Good evening:

Prime Minister, the honorable Denzil L Douglas,

Ministers of government and members of the ambassadorial corps;

President of the Labour Women's core group, Senator Marcella Liburd;

Members of the Labour Women core group

Friends.

What a pleasure and honor it is to have been asked to be here, and to join you in this timely and important forum.

It has been some time since I was in St. Kitts with the Caribbean Studies Association—perhaps about 20 years ago. But happily I will be back in November, God willing, with New York Carib News when I have some time to kick back and enjoy myself.

However, that has not in any way precluded my working with Prime Minister Douglas and Ambassador Isben Williams. I guess Doctors stick together, but we certainly find ourselves often in the same place on the same forums, and it is always a high honor and true pleasure to be anywhere with both of them, and to be of assistance whenever I am needed.

In all that I have known of the Labour Party over the years, I have no doubt that the women of Labour have always been committed to a high level of service. This meeting is demonstration of that commitment, your desire for even higher service and your determination to achieve the empowerment which will fuel your emergence as political leaders, and put that special women's touch on the destiny and the future of St. Kitts Nevis, the region and even the world.

The Honorable Constance Mitcham was one of your early pioneers. Senator Liburd, and The honorable Jacinth Henry Martin are today's role models as women here join countless others to assume their place in the political mainstream.

There is no doubt, and I am sure the good Prime Minster will agree, that women have long held power in every aspect of our lives, here and everywhere. But too often it has been that power behind the throne or the good woman, behind the man, or the backbone of every campaign.

It is not that we don't want to continue those important roles—alongside, and with -- not behind anyone. But the world—ours here locally and beyond—is truly missing an important ingredient when we women do not participate fully in the political process at every level.

We have empowered others. Isn't it time we empowered ourselves?

As Noeleen Heyzer, the Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) said at the summit of the Americas in Monterrey Mexico in January of this year:

"Comprising over 50% of the world's population, women are essential to addressing the pressing challenges we face today: achieving the millennium development goals, creating more accountable institutions of governance, ensuring more equitable resource allocation, combating HIV/AIDS and guaranteeing peace and security."

Indeed unless we are at the table the kind of changes we seek for ourselves will be move far too slowly or never happen.

We apply the same principle in the CBC health Braintrust, insisting that African Americans and other people of color be at the decision-making table. It is the only way true change will ever come.

However, both for us as African Americans and in the case of women here and everywhere, we are not at the critical mass to level the playing field just yet.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, only Cuba, Argentina and Costa Rica had passed the 30% benchmark for women's participation in parliaments or legislative bodies. In the English speaking Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago comes closest at 25.6% of seats.

Despite this, in developing countries around the world, and in 15 counties in Latin America and the Caribbean, our representation is higher than in some of the more affluent countries, including the US and France.

In the current Congress, the 108th, even though we have a record number of women at 76, 62 in the House and 14 in the Senate we are still well below the target—at 14%.

In the CBC, where we always lead - 30% of the 39 are women. Change is never easy, no matter how beneficial that change might be and as Frederick Douglass reminded us, "Power concedes nothing without a demand".

We women are ready. It is the world that may not be, and thus the key word in your theme of empowerment is "self" as you have so wisely termed it. It is us who must be the agents and the engines of the change we want.

To assume our roles in the management of our present and the shaping of our future, we have only to reach within, to the knowledge, and the insights that are already ours. We have only to unleash the inherent power, that has been in some cases allowed to lie dormant, and in others, been channeled chiefly towards more traditional vocations, and pursuits.

Certainly and happily, our families, and as I have said earlier our political leaders, have been the beneficiaries of our stewardship, St. Kitts, my Virgin Island community and others are also the better for our efforts. But we are phenomenal women, and we have so much more to give.

How can I be so sure?

We have only to look to those who came before us, and to those who provide leadership in our region, in the US and in the world today.

And we can begin where everything should and does, in the word of God.

As Caribbean women we can surely attest that we have come this far by faith and the stories of the Biblical women of faith ought to continue to be an inspiration to us even as we set of to chart our new course in the history of our nations and region.

They are perhaps even more relevant in that based on where they lived, they had to have been women of color.

For me, Mary Magdalene has always been an important figure. And whether bride or not, as some writings suggest, there is no doubt that she was a treasured confidant and disciple of Jesus—important enough to be the FIRST person to witness the risen Lord. That should affirm for us the power we have as women. Many scholars have placed her as one of the founders of the early Christian Church.

And there are so many: Esther, Ruth, Sarah and others. But I am also fascinated by the story of Abigail, who I only recently came to know, but was probably attracted to because of the context in which I have been working these 3 and a half years in Washington. As I tell the story you may understand what I mean.

But let me also say that we are far luckier than Abigail in that the men in our lives and those in the leadership in our region are more conscious, capable and compassionate, for Abigail was married to a very rich but crude and cruel man whose name was Nabal.

He owned a large expanse of land, had many servants and large herds of animals, and David and his men had protected Nabal's land and all that he owned on many occasions.

At one point David and his army, being tired from battle and hungry found themselves near Nabal's land, and so he sent a few of his men to ask him if he would give them shelter and food for a few days so they could refresh themselves.

Nabal was true to his name, which apparently means fool, for he rudely sent David's men packing and refused to give them anything.

David was so angry he decided, even though he knew it was wrong, that he would kill everyone in Nabal's family and on his land.

When Abigail heard what had happened, and how her husband had treated this revered son of Jesse, she quickly packed, up food, drink and everything she thought they would want and need and set out to go to meet David, despite the danger it posed to herself.

She met them on their way, but they stopped and she apologized for the crassness of her husband, offering them everything that she had packed and brought.

David accepted her gifts and her intercession. Thus not only her family was spared, but David was also prevented from doing something that would not have been pleasing in the sight of God.

Out of our religious tradition from then to the present have come women, who made all of the difference, and changed the course of history.

There are also a few "Nabals" in this world, (and also a lot of "Davids") but as I said we are fortunate in this part of the world to have some of the most enlightened leadership. However some of us—and I am not calling any names, have a quite different experience.

I use this story, because it shows, in exaggerated contrast, the differences in approach between women and men, and provides a fitting backdrop against which we can explore the unique gifts and potential contributions of women in governance, in politics, in leadership.

It shows or at least suggests that we are less likely to be confrontational, and more likely to seek common ground, to be respectful and to be conciliatory.

How much such approaches and sensitivities are needed in today's world of pre-emptive war, bully politics and terrorism.

Certainly wherever a given male ruler is misguided, we have not only an opportunity, but an obligation to set things aright—as many of these Biblical women did at personal and in our context political risk.

And this perhaps brings us to the next key factor women bring to the leadership equation, the willingness to take risks for the greater good.

And the examples, our forebears on this road to empowerment do not stop in the old ore even the New Testament.

The Caribbean has a wonderful history of women in leadership, that is the envy of many, including the United States. And it goes all the way back to the time of Slavery.

We were the healers, the teachers, the businesswomen, and the protectors of the village then and we are today.

And we have always been tough and resilient fighters for justice, equality and freedom.

One of the earliest specific reports is in 1797 of a group of women aboard a ship named the "Thomas" who seized guns and overpowered the crew as they were being brought across the middle passage. Had they known how to navigate the ship, or had the time to teach themselves, they would probably never had been recaptured.

In my own district, the USVI, we have used every means available to us to wage our fight for freedom.

In 1848 a young and reportedly beautiful mulatto woman, became the mistress of the Governor VonScholten. Whether it was for love or purpose, her influence in our emancipation in 1848 cannot be denied.

In 1878, it was a group of young women, some in their teenage years, who led the famous and successful labor revolt we call the "fireburn", because they burned down half of the Island.

They were but part of a cadre of women across the Caribbean like others in Jamaica who rebelled for poor working conditions and wages, and who were later followed by women such as Elma Francois in Trinidad, Lucy Stroder in Grenada in the labour movement.

Our entry into politics has been harder. but even there we have stellar role models in Elsa Barrows of Barbados, Wilma Cox in St. Vincent and Eugenia Charles in Dominica—doubtless there are countless more who also had profound roles in the formation of political parties in the region who I still need to learn about.

I have also been personally privileged and so very blessed to have my political life nurtured by so many courageous women who walk and work among us in the political field today:

Nancy Pelosi my leader in the House—and the first Minority leader, hopefully soon to be Madam Speaker of the House. I knew she would always get my vote when in the middle of the impeachment attempt; she stood in the well of the House, and pointed up at then Speaker, Newt Gingrich and said: "You should be ashamed of yourself" and went on to recount some of his recent ethics problems that I am sure he would have rather left unmentioned.

During that time I was also proud of the entire Democratic Women's caucus who were the only ones who kept our side of the House grounded in the issues and challenges that faced our country. Some would suggest—them girl say—that the men might have been paralyzed by being too conflicted on the issue.

It was African Americans and women who made sure our President Bill Clinton was re- elected.

Then there were the groups of women who marched over to the Senate, and stood in silent protest when the Defense appropriations committee was funding Viagra, but refusing to pay for birth control pills—they changed that policy. They had to!

Or the time when we were summarily removed from Jesse Helms committee meeting when we stood there to make the point that he had consistently refused to meet with us, to discuss removing the hold he had on the approval of the US becoming a signatory to the convention to End Discrimination Against Women—CEDAW.

Another source of our strengths in the political arena is that women can more afford to employ tactics, which men cannot or would not. It gives us more flexibility—to change an approach for and at the appropriate time.

The Congressional Black Caucus itself, is home to many strong women, who together have led the Caucus and the Congress on issues of importance to people of African descent at home and across the globe

Like my good friend and some think look-alike, Barbara Lee of California, who was the only member of the House -- the only one - to vote against giving George W. Bush the blanket and broad authority he wanted—and got—to wage his war against terrorism.

That took personal courage and the courage of her convictions and earned her a bodyguard for almost a year to protect her from the many threats she received. She was vilified then, but later validated and vindicated.

At the convention to End racism, discrimination and other forms of intolerance, our congressional delegation to Durban was 7 women and one man, and to Vieques in their time of conflict, 5 women and one man.

I have to tell you that throughout my eight years, I have been proud to be a woman and a Black member of Congress—we—especially the Black Caucus have, and continue to be the conscience of the Congress, and according to Maxine Waters, the fairness cops of the nation.

Closer to home here in the Caribbean, I have been privileged to know work with and admire the women ambassadors of his region of whom I would imagine Ambassador Johnny is the Dean or Deaness; and to meet, listen to and learn from a Eugenia Charles,

as she visited the Virgin Islands when I invited her to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Caribbean Youth Organization meeting in St. Thomas years ago, or more recently as a part of a Congressional delegation in Dominica. That trip was the first time the

Chairman of the western Hemisphere Subcommittee had traveled to the Caribbean in many years if at all. I was glad to have been instrumental in some small way in making that happen.

The Virgin Islands is my first and chief responsibility, but I have always considered the Caribbean a part of my larger constituency.

And just as proud as I am to be a member of the women's and Black caucuses, I am also always so very proud as a Caribbean woman when I witness the brilliance, the forceful well-reasoned and delivered arguments, the acute focus, persistence and the determination of Dame Billie Miller, as she provides such exemplary and effective leadership at home in Barbados, in regional gatherings, or on the world stage.

What stands out about all of these women is that they all unwaveringly, unflinchingly speak truth to power.

The women in our history have been doing that as far back as we are recorded. It has indeed what has built on our faith to bring us to the threshold of our fullest participation in the political process today.

And there are so many other images of women - some from very different experiences, brought into our home through modern technology in ways that connects us all.

What a moving and inspirational tableau, for all of us to come to know the extraordinary women who toil otherwise sight unseen in the various tasks of life, the many hard working women who do the little things and the big ones on which our families, our towns, our countries and our world depend.

Today we know almost intimately of the many poor women around the world, who amazingly feed families even when there is nothing to eat, who heal families even when there is no medicine in sight, and who love families even when situations are most bleak and there is no love to be found, especially for them.

In these past few years, we have been moved by the example of the Afghan and Iraqi women, who despite the imposition of a harsh and unjust system, found ways to feed their young ones when the ground was parched dry, and found ways to educate their daughters in secret, when death was the price of discovery. We witnessed how they did their part in trying to bring sanity to a world seemingly gone mad.

We saw the examples of the Congolese women, in a country occupied and at war, after their town was obliterated by the volcanic eruption, leading their families back to begin again among the ashes.

In Haiti, women holding on to hope, through years of deprivation, exploding HIV infection, and dark days of February/March of this year and the uncertainties of today.

In Sudan, determined to stay free in the face of modern day slavery, and to survive in a situation the world refuses to own up to and respond to the genocide that is occurring there and threatening hundreds of thousands of lives.

In the U.S. and here where you also bore the burden of that tragedy, we saw the many widows and mothers of September 11 as they tried to find ways to hold their families together in the face of unspeakable tragedy, who lost husbands, and in many cases children, who knew that they must grieve, but that they ultimately must go on.

And as we try to make sense of a senseless war, weren't we all proud of Shoshona Johnson—a prisoner of war, battered but unbowed who thankfully was returned to us. And in the face of her strength and courage, didn't you just know that she had to be a Caribbean woman? Panama to be exact!

We all know firsthand of the Caribbean and Black American mothers' sacrifices and secret pains -- as mothers everywhere -- who have made it possible for us to be where we are today;

Yes, we draw strength from their examples and in our woman-ness, we intimately understand the pain, sacrifice, and the loving and the giving that is intrinsic to our gender.

The world needs that—our compassion, our ability to subdue ego and empathize so to better understand and communicate.

It needs the soft side of our mothering, and it needs which fierce side that will fight to the teeth and with everything that we have to protect our children.

For in the final analysis, isn't leadership a parallel to what we do as mothers and caregivers -- guidance, nurturing and ensuring the optimal development of our people and thus our community.

Isn't it putting in place that supportive and encouraging environment to facilitate it? And isn't our motivation always our children - the future; that we should prepare it well for our children and grandchildren -- taking on the challenges of today and conquering them so that we might leave a world of peace, security and opportunity for them.

I often say, I have taken my medical practice and the caring for my patients out from the office to a wider Territorial and national platform.

So too our entry into politics is taking what we have always done and applied it beyond our family to the larger national family, and in some cases the family of man. The challenges are many:

Economic and employment equity for we in almost every part of the world are less valued, and make less money than our male counterparts for the same work; for us it is not just gender equality, it is also gender respect.

Our health, with the heavy toll of HIV/AIDS on our communities but on us in particular. In our region women are at about 52% of all AIDS cases. Everywhere, we are increasingly the face of the pandemic. Dr., PM Douglas and PanCam are providing outstanding leadership that others can learn from, but I am sure he would welcome more support and advocacy from those of us who know it because we are the ones who feel it.

Our safety—violence is still too present a factor in our lives. And so who better to work for the non-violent world, for the peace we all yearn for than those who have been its victims, and who know the potential still exists for the rest of us.

All of these are influenced by the further challenges brought about by trade globalization, and a still changing world order.

The challenge of fair trade, We need more Billie Millers to argue the cause on behalf of women and other vulnerable groups; to change the possibility of a loss into a gain.

And for the challenge of maintaining the national integrity and security and the fair treatment of small economies, who better to lead than those of us who have been the left behind.

And as if these challenges were not enough, we still have to stand against the every-day petty hurdles we face as we step up and out from our heretofore comfortable—especially for everyone else—places.

I can recall when I ran the first and second time. The talk in many a bar, ball field and corner store was: "She too soft. Going up against those big guys you need a man."

Unfortunately, it is also still difficult for some to imagine working and being successful in an environment dominated by men, where sex is not a commodity used in negotiating.

And I would be entirely unfair if I didn't make reference to the sisters among us, who also continue to fuel the belief that we women must know our place—as though that is not just anywhere and everywhere we want to be; or who in their jealousy cannot stand to see any other one of us achieve; who can't yet see that one of us rising to a higher level of service, lifts all of us.

The world is akilter because the balance that is inherent in all of God's creation is not there—women's presence and influence is not yet fully expressed.

Until balance is restored at every level, we as a people and the countries we represent, and as a world rob ourselves of the greatness that is our destiny.

That is our challenge, to guide our communities, our nations, or territories, to create that nurturing village for our children, to shape a destiny that supports the hopes and aspirations of everyone.

Not an easy task, but one that we who have often carried heavy and difficult burdens are equal to.

Who doesn't know that if you have a job that needs to get done, give it to a woman. It has also been said if you have a tough job, give it to a Black Woman. I would add, if you have an impossible job—give it to a Caribbean woman—we have long been known to pick sense out of nonsense, make lemonade out of lemons, and make short work of the impossible!

Because what we lack in tools, we have in will;

What we may lack in information and experience, we have in intuitive knowledge and old world wisdom;

What we lack in traditional power we gather from the power of our boundless, unconditional and selfless love.

There is no limit to what we can do with what has always been ours.

As women, today, standing at a point of rebirth, we are indeed blessed to be able to draw on the strength of all of the women of our faith, our world and of our history, as we work to make the complete and optimal wellbeing for ourselves and our families no longer a dream deferred, but our reality.

I have every confidence that you, the women of Labour, are fully prepared to use the power that is already within you, and to use it well, and for good.

And I know it with certainty and for good reason!

You see, I can give testimony, to my own growth in my new political life—the risks I have taken, because I have deemed them necessary, the powers to whom I find I must speak truth, my reliance on my faith, and the sensitivity honed over 21 years of medical practice to hear the cries of my constituents and respond.

Like some of you here today, I never planned to run for office, preferring to stay behind the scenes, helping elect and even choose candidates. That is important work.

But if you have a vision, you will soon come to realize that no one can fulfill that vision for you better than you.

So I even surprised myself when I chose to run for the open Delegate seat—and after losing the first time, coming back through a primary, general election and run off to win in 1996.

Not having any real legislative experience, I applied myself in true Caribbean woman fashion, rolling up my sleeves, taking on any task, and carving out a place for myself with the help, support and prayers of my constituents in the seat of power in what is still the most powerful country in the world.

Today despite all that we together have been able to accomplish, I face my biggest challenge yet, not so much because of the person himself, but because of the opposition of our government leaders to a bill to create a CFO that I have introduced.

Personally, I wish I didn't have to do it, but I would be negligent and unworthy of the trust of the people of the Virgin Islands if I were to let what I see as a problem fester and grow with potential terrible consequences for our community.

So among other things, I have been a good student of the people I admire. I told Barbara Lee the other day that she bears some of the blame for what I am doing, and I thanked her!

Today, whether one agrees with the proposal not, the talk in those same bars, ball fields and corner stores has certainly changed.

It all comes back to

  • Being willing to take risks if necessary
  • To speak truth to power
  • To listening and being sensitive to the pain of our constituents,
  • And to diligently fighting for the best interests of all and for a more secure future for our children.

I have to admit that it is a more confrontational stance than I would normally take, or is my nature, but it came after years of talking, writing and advocating for change.

But it is more than my own experience that makes me so sure of your capacity to be self-empowered and rise to higher levels of service.

It is because of girl who was born here is St. Kitts, and at 3 years old moved with her mother and 6 siblings to St. Croix in the first decade of the 20th century; a young girl whose mother washed people clothes, and cleaned their houses to send her to school; who went as far as she could go in her education in the Virgin Islands at that time, and then began to share what she had learned to countless others over almost 60 years in the class room—always seeking and pursing ways to expand her own education;

A woman who never stopped learning, and who received her master's when she was 80 in the same year her granddaughter received a bachelor's of science. A woman who was committed to the end to her community and to her God. She remains known and loved throughout The Virgin Islands and beyond, and her children by blood and through the classroom call her blessed.

That woman was one of my very first, most consistent, best and also longest living role models.

She was my grandmother. And she was Kittitian.

So women of Labour's core group, I am confident that you have a bright productive future ahead of you, and because of your empowerment and higher level of service so does St.Kitts/Nevis and all of us.

May God bless you and guide your way!